The ethics of breeding to kill

Veganism, vegetarianism, and “ethical” farming seem to be gaining a lot of ground lately, which is something I find fascinatingly absurd.

In part, I think this comes from a felicitous style of reasoning that I outlined here.

But, in hindsight, I think a lot of people that consume meat don’t have any foundation that backs up their choice of killing animals for food. So I think it’s worth outlining one here.

First, let’s get the two “main” arguments against killing animals for food and factory farming on the table:

  1. The utilitarian argument—Farming animals for meat often causes more “suffering” than “joy” to the animals.

  2. The normative argument—Breeding something in order to kill it is “wronger” than not having it live at all.

Second, I want to look at the kind of animals me (and presumably many people) would feel bad about killing or eating. I’m going to ignore cats and dogs here because there’s too much baggage to take in due to the role they play in our society. But disregarding those, I think there are three categories:

  • Humans

  • Apes (potentially extending to all monkeys)

  • Cetaceans (whales & dolphins)

That’s not to say we would eat all other types of animals, but if an Inuit tribesman would hand you a traditional dish made with seal or bever you might begrudgingly (or, in my case, happily) give it a go. However, you would probably refuse if that same tribesman handed you human or blue whale meat.


Hedonic Regression

Utilitarianism is a good ethics framework if you refuse to understand how a brain works. In the real world, suffering and joy aren’t so clean cut. Animals adapt their “level of suffering” to their environment. If an animal is in a hostile land for a few months, and when you deprive it of water, that animal might feel equally bad as one that has lived in parades for the last few months but has just been deprived of a mating opportunity.

The world’s happiness index can be a good showcase we humans experience this to some extent. Note, for example, how Saudi Arabia (a harsh and unequal Islamic theocratic monarchy that still practices beheading and crucifixion sprawling over an unforgiving desert) is overall “happier” than Spain… which, is Spain, it’s so nice it’s among the top 5 global destinations for foreign holidays.

To give a more extreme example, Somalia is at 112 out of 156, above countries like Ukraine. Somalia seems to be a horrifying place to be even by Subsaharan African standard. Somalia’s GDP per capita as of 2019 is 348$ (almost 200 times lower than that of the US and with higher income inequality), the rate of female genital mutilation is 98% (see wiki article if you want more graphic details, whatever you’re thinking of, I assure you it’s worst than that). I won’t go into more details here, but feel free to dig through it’s Wikipedia page if you want to see exactly how horrible a place can get.

Granted, some of the countries ranked lower such as Ukraine, India, Iran, and Georgia aren’t ideal. But the problems there seem more akin to those in Eastern Europe around the turn of the 21st century, rather than… whatever the hell is happening in Somalia.

This is just a nit-picky showcase, but feel free to dig into the issue further if it’s the first time you heard about it, I feel like it’s hardly a controversial phenomenon.

The question that remains is something like: How far does hedonic regression go? To which the answer varies. You can probably get a personal answer by looking at metrics of happiness during your life (e.g. amount of good sleep, money, sex, romantic relationships, nice objects, good friends, drugs, quality time with your parents and, the free time you had) vs how happy you felt at any given time.

I assume a Buddhist monk might claim 90% of the thing is constructed and your circumstances don’t matter at all, while a hardcore Marxist might say reverse those percentages. Still, regardless of what the number is, we seem to agree that “objective” happiness is enough of a thing to motivate us towards (trying at) improving the human condition through material means.

These material means includes things like not farming our fellow humans in tight cages or confined pastures in order to slaughter and eat them.

Suicide as an indicator of objective happiness

While it’s hard to quantify objective happiness, I think it’s fair to use suicide as a benchmark for when someone’s life becomes miserable enough for them to end it.

Granted, a lot of suicides are “spur of the moment” psychotic acts, but some are cold and calculated and spurred on by chronic suffering. Overall, they account for 1.5% of human deaths, which is quite significant.

Even more so, a larger number of people probably live in “suicide-inducing” conditions, but carry on due to hoping for happiness in the future.

This is all to say, hedonic regression or not, there’s certainly a breaking point for humans when the suffering outweighs the pleasure enough for life to not be worth living.

There’s some debate as to whether or not animals commit suicide due to “suffering”. The only “obvious” cases are in dolphins, with the most well studied being Flipper and the lesser-known Peter.

We can argue over the exact definition of “knowing” what life and death are and thus “consciously” deciding to commit suicide. But in the case of a dolphin-like Peter, it seems that the chain of events is something like:

  • Get taken away from your kin and placed in a house with a girl and some researchers

  • Befriend the girl and make seemingly sexual advanced on her

  • Have her begrudgingly reciprocate with some pitty hand jobs

  • Drop acid with her and some scientists

  • Get taken out of the house and away from the girl you liked

  • Commit suicide by swimming to the bottom of a tank and staying there until you run out of air and suffocate.

Is there some anthropomorphizing going on here? Maybe. But I think it’s hard to make this seem like anything but a human-like suicide due to life being too miserable for it to be worth living. This is not a cell committing apoptosis, this is not a mother jumping in front of a predator to give her kids time to escape, this is not an old alpha male dying in a battle to protect his fading status, it’s not a scared bison being chased off a cliff.

The case for suicide in other cetaceans is vaguer, but it still seems plausible that they would exhibit such behavior based on their other actions.

To my knowledge, it hasn’t been observed in monkeys (other than vervet monkeys, arguably), but then again, studying monkeys in the wild is hard and we usually treat them fairly well in captivity. Still, I think it’s a safe bet based on how similar apes are to us that they might be capable of suicide, they are certainly capable of many other forms of self-harm.

Can hedonic regression go on forever?

Conversely, it seems that there are no documented cases of suicide amongst commonly farmed animals. The closest I can get to is an incident in the alps with cows throwing themselves off a cliff. But knowing how cows are treated in the Swiss alps (hint: fairly nicely, arguably better than we treat most humans, certainly not in any way resembling factory farms) plus many other cases of scared bovines accidentally running off cliffs, I think it’s fair to assume this is not a “suicide” but rather an accident.

Granted, the absence of evidence is not proof, but I’d think we’d have observed this if there were a significant number of cases. Self-harm amongst farmed animals does seem to happen, but it never seems to directly lead to death, at most it leads to infections that kill them later (e.g. due to the excessive grooming behavior that most animals exhibit in captivity).

The obvious conclusion from this ought to be that animals in captivity are on the whole “happy”, even those in factory farms. Or at least, not suffering so much as to think their condition to be worst than death.

You may retort that the kind of animals we farm aren’t able of the reasoning needed to conclude “My present condition is worst than not being at all”. But then, why assume the concepts of joy and suffering as we understand them to apply to them at all? If they aren’t agentic enough to reason about their condition in that objective sense, then the obvious model seems one where they lack our partially objective concepts of “good” and “bad” entirely.

To summarize:

The assumption that factory-farmed animals lead a life of “suffering”, that is to say, they get “negative” joy out of life and they’d be better off being dead, seem shacky.

Suffering and happiness are human concepts, and we can in part attest there are forms of suffering worst than death by looking at our choice to commit suicide (i.e. chose death over suffering).

This behavior seems to be exhibited by some animals of presumably similar intelligence (cetaceans and monkeys), but not by the animals we farm.

Thus, based on our best interpretation of the hard subject of consciousness and feeling in different species, it seems reasonable to assume that:

a) The animals we farm “prefer” living in their current state to dying.

b) The animals we farm lack any concepts of suffering and joy similar to ours.

The utilitarian argument for not farming animals would fall over in both of these situations. Even worst, if the problem falls into the case a), then as a utilitarian, you’d have a duty to eat as many animals as possible, thus ensuring the birth and happiness-positive lives of as many farm animals as you can. Being a vegetarian would not only fail to prevent any suffering but might actually diminish the amount of happiness in the world.

The normative argument for not farming animals might still stand if it involves religious reasons (e.g. the insistence upon not killing in certain branches of Buddhism and Hinduism). But the version that is based on the normative value assigned to “happiness” and “suffering” would be invalid in this paradigm.

This is not to say that we can certainly conclude that animals being farmed don’t actually dislike life more than they enjoy it. This could certainly be the case, and they might just lack the reasoning to commit suicide. But this is an arbitrary anthropomorphic trait we decide to assign upon them and it could equally well be assigned to mosquitos, or waps, or mycelia.

Thus I fail to see a strong ethical argument against the eating of animals from this perspective. Although there’s a completely unrelated environmental perspective against farming animals which this doesn’t address.

It seems that we should at most “shelf” this problem for later when there is enough time to actually address the fundamental question of whether or not these animals would or could prefer inexistence to their current state.

Until then, the sanest choice would seem to be that of focusing our suffering-diminishing potential onto the beings that can most certainly suffer so much as to make their condition seem worst than death.